What is linguistics?

One question I’m asked a lot, given my studies in college, is: what is linguistics? (Editor’s note: I also have gotten, “what are linguistics?”) It’s usually followed up with the likes of: Is it just a fancy term for grammar? Are you studying just English linguistics?  So you basically just took a bunch of language courses?

The short answers to the followup questions are no, no, and no. The medium answer is “it’s hard to explain.” But the long answer is – true to form – where the good stuff is.

I think of linguistics as a toolkit. It’s a way to systematically analyze language. And by language, I mean everything from the way words are formed to how we tell stories to regional accents to a language’s evolution over time. Linguistics finds itself bedfellows with a broad range of fields of study, including sociology, psychology, anatomy, history, technology, and cognitive science. Linguists decoded Egyptian hieroglyphs, and linguists created Klingon.

An important aspect of linguistics that differentiates it from the study of English (or what have you) is that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Descriptive means a neutral, observation-based way of seeing things; prescriptive refers to the way your English teacher taught you (e.g. don’t end a sentence in a preposition, it’s wrong to say yadda yadda yadda).

There’s a theoretical element to linguistics: How did human language begin? Do bees use bona fide language? Can a computer ever really fully hold a natural conversation?

And there’s a practical side to it too: Why do people add a vowel sound in the middle of the word ‘realtor’? How do women’s speech patterns differ from men’s? Why is the word ‘mama’ the same in almost every language?

Here is the clearest schema I’ve seen of some major branches of linguistics and how they relate to each other:

Unit of speech Field
Discourse analysis
(pieces of a word that have meaning)
(clusters of sounds)
Featural analysis
Sound feature

There are many other sub-fields than what I listed right here. Sociolinguistics examines the the societal aspects of things, like in what situations we change the way we speak. Semiotics is the relationship between words and their meanings. Language development looks at how children acquire language, as opposed to the way that adults learn new languages. This list goes on and on, but for the purposes of this post I just want to give a basic view of what’s out there.

What linguistics can do for you (the upside)

I am tempted to tell you that studying linguistics works the miracles that downloading the Yo app does, but I would be a fraud to compare the two. But it helps me every day and opened my eyes in a number of ways. It can for you, too.

Mastering phonetics and phonology can help you shake that accent you’ve been trying to get rid of, or perfect your foreign pronunciation. Studying syntax can make figuring out new grammars effortless. Discourse analysis tunes you into subtext in conversations. Semantics will make you be misunderstood less.

What linguistics will do to you (the downside)

The downside of linguistics is that you can’t turn it off, and the subject matter surrounds us 24/7. If you are a math person, you can find many applications of numbers and patterns, but it’s not embedded in every single utterance and every single communication anyone makes. So what’s annoying to me – and ten times more annoying to my friends and family – is that it’s always on. I can’t help analyzing and commenting on how they used this unusual structure or how their accent manifested itself on such-and-such a phrase. So beware: you might drive your loved ones insane with your new-found powers.

Learn more/resources

I’ve compiled some of my favorite free resources in my links page, where you can learn and explore.

Image source: http://www.sjsu.edu/linguistics/pics/lld_wordle_660px.jpg

Life without complaints

This came across my radar recently: a guy spent 21 days turning complaints into something constructive. Read his story on Huffington Post.

“Man, I went into the post office and had to stand behind this rude jerk for 30 minutes. What a waste of time.”
“John can be such an a**hole. Totally uncalled for.”

“Man, I went into the post office and had to stand behind this rude guy for 30 minutes. It was a waste of time. From now on, I’ll go in the mornings before 10 a.m. to avoid the crowd.”
“John was a bit of muppet in there, wasn’t he? I suppose I’ll just send the e-mails directly to Mary in engineering for the next two weeks to get buy-in, then he’ll have to agree.”

Pretty inspiring. It reminds me of Right speech in Buddhist thought.

Image source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-ferriss/no-complaint-experiment_b_5610433.html

DC’s Silver Line opening (nerd alert)

I’m in Washington, DC at the moment, and I’m very excited about the WMATA to open the Metro’s Silver line tomorrow. It’s the 6th line in the system, and the biggest change since the opening of the Green line.

Technically speaking, many of the changes went into effect last Sunday, when they began what they call Simulation Service. Basically for this week they’re running all the Silver trains through existing stations only (not the 5 new ones), and calling them Orange trains. They also have shuffled around the frequencies of the other trains. The changes are laid out beautifully in this article from InTheCapital.

But tomorrow at noon EDT is when the line really gets going, with the new stations being brought into service and the Silver trains getting designed as such, complete with cookies.

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